I’m sitting in Starbucks while writing this entry, which says two things:

1) Starbucks exists in Madrid (and widely, at that), and, by extension,

2) the coffee in Spain is not all that good.

Currently, there exists not a single Starbucks in Italy. In Madrid, alone, however, there are 44 Starbucks coffeehouses.

It’s pretty easy to figure out why Starbucks has been such a huge success. Coffee is a stimulant: it makes people feel good. Add tons of sugar, milk, and flavorings to that, as Starbucks has done, and you’ve got yourself a hit. But that’s not the reason I started coming to Starbucks in Madrid: I came because it was the only place with a relaxing, smoke-free environment to read and study. Starbucks has got itself a pretty brilliant marketing strategy, indeed.

But this is about the coffee. It really is hard to find great coffee: coffee that doesn’t need sugar and milk to make it more drinkable. As the barista trainer of my favorite coffee shop in Chicago, Intelligentsia, succinctly put it, “great espresso is not the result of chance.”

Last year, the economy was rough, I was a recent college grad (and a liberal arts one, at that), and thus found myself balancing two jobs: one teaching night classes to adults at a Spanish language school, and one working at Chicago’s Downtown Farmstand, a sort of indoor farmers’ market. Really, these two jobs balanced some of my greatest interests pretty well: language, culture, and gastronomy.

Intelligentsia is pretty much the undisputed king of coffee in Chicago, not to mention one of the very best in the country (I also nod my head to you, Metropolis). I learned basically every good thing I know about coffee from Intelligentsia. Intelligentsia made me a coffee snob, or at least, aggravated an existing condition.  😉

Working at the farmers’ market brought me in direct contact with Intelligentsia’s barista trainer. Intelligentsia has its own roasting plant in Chicago, making the coffee arguably “local”, and so we sold it at the Farmstand. One day Alexandra, the aforementioned barista trainer, came to show us how it was done. She taught us to steam the milk only to 140° F, that slowly pulling the pitcher down the wand while steaming stretches the proteins of the milk, resulting in an even, tight foam, and milk that hasn’t been scorched (big air pockets are a sure-fire sign of badly steamed milk).  She taught us to clean the wand immediately afterwards and open the nozzle again to clear out any milk that would otherwise crystallize inside – something I observe in coffeeshops with mistrustful eyes; this is a commonly abandoned step. Coffee beans are at their peak ten days after their roast date. She showed us the exact pressure needed to temp the espresso in its gasket so that it doesn’t come out too fast (and flavorless) or too slow (and bitter): twenty to twenty-five seconds flowing from the espresso machine is ideal. She told us: never freeze your coffee beans, as that would dry them out, thus ruining the flavor. The coffee beans should be ground individually for each shot, resulting in the freshest, brightest flavors. I listened, fascinated, jotting down notes.

Legend has it that in the 16th century, Catholics, fearing that coffee was the work of the devil (it did come from Islamic countries, after all), brought it to attention to the Pope Clement VIII. The Pope tasted it and liked it so much that rather than prohibiting it, he blessed it: “This Satan’s drink is delicious…it would be a pity to let the infidels have exclusive use of it. We shall fool Satan by baptizing it.” From there, coffee spread across the Western world.

In both Italy and Spain, what we call “espresso”, they call “café” (“caffè in Italian): espresso, to them, is your basic coffee. From there, the varieties are endless; in Spain, the most common is “café con leche”, coffee with steamed milk, which is much like the café au lait (or café crème) in France; a close second is “café cortado”, literally, “cut coffee”: the bitterness of the coffee is “cut” with a dash of mild milk (the Spanish equivalent to the Italian macchiato). There’s “café bombón”: espresso + sweetened condensed milk, as candy-like as the name suggests; “café vienés”: coffee topped with a mound of whipped cream, among other varieties.

A coffee expert friend of mine, while visiting me in Spain, tried the coffee and said it seemed weak, perhaps a medium roast, lacking depth, over-extracted. The milk they use in Spain didn’t help much, either: Spaniards most typically drink UHT (ultra high temperature processed) milk. UHT milk is partially sterilized by heating it for a short time, around one to two seconds, at temperatures exceeding 135 degrees Celsius (275 degrees Farhenheit). UHT milk has a shelf-life of six to nine months, and is popular in hotter countries like Spain, where the cost of transporting milk in refrigerated trucks is very high. Consumption of UHT milk in Spain is at 95.7%, in Italy, 49.8%, compared to Great Britain, 8.4%. My theory on UHT milk? Any milk that can last for six to nine months unrefrigerated should not be trusted. Not to mention, it tastes kinda funny.

–Look for PART TWO on COFFEE IN SPAIN next week.– 🙂